Casablanca is usually written off as a place to land at the airport and head directly for Morocco’s photogenic destinations like Marrakech, Fes, Chefchaouen, the Sahara, or the Atlas Mountains. The city is almost stuck in the past, filled with old, decaying buildings and crumbling infrastructure. But at the same time, it’s increasingly modern: there’s a new tram and trendy restaurants inspired by New York are popping up. It’s the industrial center of Morocco, and home to many expats employed by international companies.
The only place you’ll run into many other tourists is at Rick’s Cafe, a replica of the venue in the movie Casablanca. Fun fact: Casablanca wasn’t filmed in Morocco, but in a Hollywood studio. That means Rick’s Cafe is a big fake, and in my opinion doesn’t really need to be on the itinerary.
I think Casablanca warrants a day or two of exploration: what it lacks in picturesque beauty, it makes up for in hidden charms.
It’s easy: Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights to Casablanca from New York City, as well as European cities including London, Paris and Madrid.
It’s not as far away as you think: Morocco might seem like a far-flung destination, but from NYC the flight to Casablanca is a little more than six hours. If you don’t happen to live in NYC, you can fly through many European cities to connect to Morocco (it’s less than a two hour flight from cities in Spain, for example). Great excuse for a stopover, anyone?
Here are a few things to do if you’re spending 48 hours in Casablanca.
Mosque Hassan II
An architectural wonder built on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Mosque Hassan II was surprisingly built just recently – construction was completed in 1993. The king at the time, Hassan II, recognized that Casablanca was missing any big attractions so he commissioned the most ambitious structure ever built in Morocco. It took 7 years to build the mosque, which can fit up to 25,000 worshippers.
Mosque Hassan II is the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-muslims to enter and tour the inside. In fact, many parts of the mosque were built just for tourist education. For example, there is a non-working hammam, or bath house, inside, where visitors can learn about this ancient tradition.
One interesting fact: Mosque Hassan II was built completely from Moroccan materials (cedar, marble and granite), except for imported chandeliers and stained glass from Italy.
The construction of the mosque was VERY expensive, and unfortunately it displaced many slum dwellers. Adding insult to injury, every Moroccan family had to contribute financially to the building of Mosque Hassan II, which is controversial in a country where so many are so poor.
We walked from the port of Casablanca to Mosque Hassan II and on the way we passed by fancy condos being developed on the waterfront, while dilapidated housing lined the opposite side of the street. In fact, there is a large slum right across from the mosque. I can’t imagine how it must have felt being in such poor living conditions while a magnificent mosque, funded by the public, was being built across the street.
A few tips for visiting Mosque Hassan II:
- Tours are only offered in several languages at certain points during the day, and there are no tours on Friday. The tours begin downstairs, inside the mosque, where you can buy tickets.
- Make sure you are wearing socks, as you will be required to remove your shoes in certain parts of the mosque. They will give you a plastic bag to hold your shoes.
- Dress conservatively. At the minimum, you should wear long sleeves and long pants or a skirt, but you’ll notice that many people are wearing scarves and/or covering their hair. (For more on how to dress in Morocco in general, read this post about what to pack for Morocco).
- The best way to reach Mosque Hassan II is by taxi (make sure you tell them to put the meter on, or negotiate a satisfactory price beforehand if they refuse).
Brunch at La Sqala
Located on Boulevard des Almohades, La Sqala is located inside an 18th-century fortress, on the edge of the medina (old walled city) and near the Port of Casablanca. The garden-like outdoor setting is the perfect place to escape the dusty city for a relaxing Sunday brunch. There are several pre-fixed menu options to choose from that include traditional Moroccan food: egg tajines, fresh fruit smoothies, and crepe-like m’semmen served with argan oil, olive oil, honey and various other yummy things for dipping endless amounts of bread.
The price was very affordable by US standards, probably around $10 USD for a massive spread of food, coffee, juice and a smoothie. In fact, I’m sure two people could have split one of these indulgent meals and been more than satisfied.
One thing about La Sqala that I liked was the fact that even though it’s clearly a tourist-driven restaurant, there were plenty of Moroccans eating there there too. I’ve heard that the other meals at La Sqala aren’t quite as great as brunch, so if you’re in Casablanca on a weekend I’d definitely recommend starting your day here.
After you eat, you can climb up the stairs of the fortress and catch a peek of the medina and Mosque Hassan II from the top. The mosque is within walking distance of the restaurant if you plan to go there after, or you can grab a taxi.
Tour Casablanca’s Art Deco Architecture
photo: mustapha ennaimi/Flickr
To take in the famed White City’s Art Deco architecture, take a stroll downtown. Called “novelle ville,” this bustling neighborhood is a step back in time, where Art Deco meets French colonialism and traditional Moroccan design. Casablanca is Morocco’s industrial center, but it was actually just a small city until the French chose it as the capital of their protectorate over Morocco in 1912. Shortly after, heavily influenced by the Art Deco movement, French architects swept in and created intricately carved friezes and ornate wrought-iron balconies that contrast starkly against the primarily white buildings.
The best place to take it all in is Boulevard Mohammed V, also the location of Casablanca’s new modern tram. It’s an interesting sight to see: a sleek, shiny new tram zipping by these historical buildings from another era.
photo: mustapha ennaimi/Flickr
Sadly, you’ll note that many of these Art Deco buildings are crumbling in disrepair. Places that were once beautiful now look dirty, rusty and simply broken down. There are often talks of restoring and repairing Casablanca’s architectural gems. But as locals know, as in most other construction projects in Morocco, there is a long road ahead and some repairs may never happen.
photo: Justin Clements/Flickr
While not everything is perfect, Casablanca’s Art Deco architecture is worth a look. It gives a glimpse of what once was, as well as the current situation as Morocco strives to become a modern country while preserving its rich heritage (with plenty of political conflicts along the way). Casablanca might not be as dazzling or appealing as Morocco’s major tourist destinations like Marrakech, the Sahara desert and the Atlas Mountains but a couple of days in the city would be well spent.